The images on the television screen are now so familiar we become immune. Unimaginable numbers of people suffering and dying in a part of the world we know little about for reasons we know even less. What is it that we feel? Sadness, pity, a sense of anger, a sense of hopelessness? So we make the right noises, perhaps make a donation to the relevant charity and move on to the next news item. Yet the people suffering are just like us; the only difference is that we are lucky enough to have been born here.
To understand the crisis in Darfur one has to know something of Darfur itself. Darfur is a large province in western Sudan bigger than Britain but with a population smaller than Scotland. Bordering the Central African Republic, Chad and Libya it is a largely desert region interspersed with some of the richest arable farmland in Africa. Access to this farmland and proximity to these other countries are key factors in the current crisis. Mostly African rather than Arab its southern border marks the boundary between Arab north Africa and the "African" Africa.
Tribalism dominates politics in Darfur as it does in most of Sudan. This isn't to say that social, economic and class issues are absent, but rather that they are usually expressed in tribal terms. Central to the current situation has been a long standing conflict between the dominant Fur tribe, from which Darfur derives its name, and various Arab tribes known collectively as the Janjaweed. The Fur are arable farmers and historically control some of the richest farmlands and access to water particularly in central Darfur. The Janjaweed are primarily cattle ranchers moving their herds through Darfur and Chad and competing with the Fur for access to grazing land and water. This conflict has been going on since far back in history and has usually been settled by negotiation and little bloodshed. In recent years, however, other forces have intervened, intensifying the conflict to almost genocidal proportions.
Originally a self-governing sultanate, Darfur was incorporated into British-ruled Sudan in 1916 and became the country's western province when Sudan achieved independence in 1956. Because of the distance from the capital, Khartoum, and the weakness of the central state, successive post-colonial governments have tried to govern Darfur by proxy — establishing alliances with key tribes and actively intervening to ensure their allies control affairs on the ground.
As all Sudanese governments have been Arab dominated, they have tended to support Arab rather than African peoples in Darfur as in other regions. From independence in 1956 to the military coup in 1989 that overthrew the government of President Sadiq al Mahdi, Darfur was a relatively peaceful and stable region with most internal conflicts contained by negotiation, and the region enjoying a large degree of autonomy. In 1989 the National Islamic Front staged a coup and seized power in Khartoum. The current crisis in Darfur has its origin in this event.
National Islamic Front
The National Islamic Front staged its coup in response to a number of issues. Khartoum had effectively lost the war in the south to the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) and the National Islamic Front blamed this on the weakness of the government of Sadiq al Mahdi. Their fear was that other regional forces might look for greater independence weakening the state still further. Allied to this was the rise in strength and influence of the Communist Party of Sudan (CPS), which, although only legalised for a few short years, had grown into a genuinely mass organisation. With its call for Sudan to become a fully secular state, the CPS was seen as anti-Islamic and a threat to the existing order. The spectre of 1971 was also regularly raised — the year the Communist Party was involved in an attempt to overthrow the government and seize power. The National Islamic Front solution was to ban the CPS, re-launch the war in the south and turn Sudan into a fully fledged Islamic state.
In Darfur, the military coup was treated with complete dismay especially when it became clear that the government would seek to undermine the region's autonomy. The long established policy of supporting Arab tribes in their conflict over access to land was stepped up and attacks by Arab militias increased. The aim was to make these tribes dominant in Darfur and strengthen alliances with them.
This came to a head in 2002 when two local rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), accused the government of oppressing the non-Arab majority. Although representing different tribal and geographical areas they were both united in their desire for greater Darfur autonomy and a return to civilian government in Khartoum. Within both groups are elements committed to independence for Darfur. A problem with trying to tie down exactly who rebel groups are is that they are constantly changing, with mergers, divisions and new groups coming onto the scene all the time.
On February 25, 2002, a group calling itself the Darfur Liberation Front launched a successful attack on an army garrison in Darfur's Jebel Marrah district. There then followed a low-intensity war between various rebel groups and the army in which government forces fared extremely badly.
The Sudanese army, poorly equipped and trained, was already stretched by the war in the south. Proving no match for the rebels, the government relied on aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas, which had a devastating effect on civilians.
Despite this the government faced a humiliating defeat when, on April 25, 2003, a joint force of SLM and JEM rebels attacked and destroyed the main army base in the regional capital, Al Fasher. Having effectively "lost" the south to the SPLA, the government feared that Darfur was going the same way. By the summer, government forces were on the retreat all over Darfur with the conflict threatening to spill over into the neighbouring Kordofan region.
At this point the government changed tactics. An alliance was forged between the Janjaweed militia and the government that put the militia at the centre of Khartoum's counter-insurgency strategy. The Janjaweed, already well armed and organised, were supplied with new weaponry and logistical support. Supported by military intelligence and the air force, they began to attack the civilian population from where the rebels had emerged.
The strategy was ruthless and amounted to a planned campaign of genocide. The tactic was simple. A group of villages would be identified. The air force would go in first and bomb the villages. The Janjaweed would then follow raping, killing and generally creating as much carnage as possible. Those who escaped would become refugees and to make sure they couldn't return, everything left in the village — houses, crops and livestock — would be destroyed. The tactic began in central Darfur but was soon rolled out across the entire region.
By the spring of 2004, it is estimated that 10,000 people had been killed and more than a million turned into refugees causing a major humanitarian disaster. The conflict then took on an international dimension when more than 100,000 refugees poured over the border into Chad pursued by Janjaweed.
In April 2004 Chad brokered a peace deal leading to the signing of the Humanitarian Ceasefire Agreement between the JEM, the SLM and the government. However, this deal fell apart almost as soon as it was signed, largely because the government was never really committed to it in the first place. This led to a further division in the rebel camp, with some determined to stick to the terms of the agreement and others continuing the fight. If anything, the Janjaweed campaign was stepped up, which led Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United Nations, to accuse the Sudanese government of an organised campaign of genocide.
Again under international pressure, another peace agreement was signed in May 2006 but fell apart for essentially the same reasons as the first agreement. In fact, it is clear that the only reason the Sudanese government signs these treaties is as a sop to international opinion.
The situation today is that Darfur presents one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed while more than 1 million have become refugees. Apart from attacks by the Janjaweed and government forces, many are dying from lack of food, shelter, medication and sanitation. Even if the conflict were to be resolved tomorrow it could take years to repairs the damage to the economy and infrastructure inflicted by the scorched earth policy. Meanwhile, the Khartoum government is stalling on any future peace initiatives and actively resisting the sending in of international peacekeepers. The various rebel groups are divided about what to do. Some want to continue the fight; others want a negotiated solution in the face of catastrophe.
Part of the problem for the government is that their very survival depends very much on achieving "victory" in Darfur.
The 1989 coup had little support in the country and relied on a coalition of Islamic, business and army interests for success. Since then, the war in the south has been lost with the government forced into signing a humiliating peace treaty with the SPLA, and the economy exists at a pitifully low level; further economic development, in particular the oil industry, is being hampered by political instability.
Internationally, the country has never been more isolated, with even many Islamic states keeping it at arm's length due to its operations in Darfur. The government has tried to play the nationalist card, claiming it is the victim of an international campaign to subvert the country and that the anti-government forces in Darfur are being manipulated by foreign powers. However, the Sudanese people might be poor and isolated but they are not stupid and they blame the government for the present crisis.
Various suggestions have been put forward by the international community to deal with the crisis. These include sanctions against the regime in Khartoum, Western intervention and/or intervention by the African Union. The problem is that none of these are likely to prove successful.
Sanctions, whether political or economic, would be ineffectual. The regime is already isolated internationally and the country in such a precarious economic state that few people would notice that sanctions have been imposed. In fact, the imposition of Western sanctions might be beneficial to the regime. It would allow them to attempt to rally the people in the face of an outside threat and help them put pressure on Islamic and Arab states to give support.
Western intervention, in the form of troops, has never been a serious proposal. To put it quite bluntly, the West has no economic or strategic interests in Darfur and therefore no reason to commit troops. Intervention by the African Union is also likely to prove ineffectual. The African Union is too politically divided and the forces that are likely to be committed too meagre to make much of a difference. There is at present a limited African Union force tellingly made up mostly of Rwandan troops.
The key to ending the crisis lies in Khartoum. The National Islamic Front government is clearly struggling and unstable. Its overthrow is an absolute prerequisite for any settlement in Darfur. What is needed is a return to a broad-based civilian government committed to ending the conflict. Such a government would end military operations in Darfur, cut off supplies to the Janjaweed and be a genuine force for reconciliation in the region.
The Islamic Front now has little support in the country; much less than when it seized power in 1989. Ranged against it are a powerful de-facto alliance including the main opposition Umma Party, the Communist Party, the SPLA (now in complete control of the south) and various other regional forces. There is also evidence of deep divisions within the government and dissent in the army. Internationally, the regime is completely isolated and with an economy in a perpetual state of crisis.
There is growing evidence that key elements in the army and big business have run out of patience with the regime and are looking for an alternative. The question is what kind of alternative. For some sections of this ruling group, their opposition is based on the failure of the regime to deliver on its original program and they may look to put in power an army-led government that would continue with the policies of the regime only more effectively. Others believe that their interests might be better served by supporting the opposition and helping to shape any future government they might form.
For left and progressive forces in Sudan, any future government must be based on a key principle. That the government should be democratic and broad-based representing a coalition of the disparate groups and people that make up Sudan and a government which respects regional autonomy in a secular state. Such a government would forge a new alliance with the regions based on equality and partnership. They see this as the prerequisite for tackling the many problems of this vast country and ultimately of moving the country in the direction of socialism.
[Bill Bonnar lived and worked in Darfur for almost three years up to 1989 and was a member of the Sudanese Communist Party, which was then going through one of its brief periods of legality. He left the country following the military coup in 1989 when the party was banned. Abridged from Frontline, an independent Marxist journal produced in support of the Scottish Socialist Party. Visit http://redflag.org.uk.]